“My dad’s been moved to the ICU and we’re not allowed to see him.”
When Sandra Brunner heard those words last week, the death doula ― a caretaking occupation that supports the end-of-life process ― realized the COVID-19 pandemic was going to make how her clients say goodbye and grieve their loved ones much more difficult.
Preparing for death during a pandemic comes with exceptional challenges, especially when gathering together is no longer an option. Hospitals around the country are tightening their visitation policies or forbidding them entirely. Funerals and memorial services are sources of comfort that are no longer accessible for many Canadians, as social distancing discourages public gatherings.
“I think a lot of people find the ritual of a burial, a service, or the closing of a casket lid to represent an end,” the Toronto-based doula practitioner told HuffPost Canada.
Funeral home director Scott MacCoubrey has seen first-hand how devastating it is for Canadians to forego mourning customs. The third-generation director of MacCoubrey Funeral Home in Coburg, Ont. says funeral homes have had to turn down families requesting services in order to comply with public gathering ordinances. It’s currently against the law for more than 10 people to attend a funeral in Ontario; the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) orders small-sized funeral homes reduce this further.
“It’s really hard on the families,” he told HuffPost Canada. “You want to be able to grieve right then and celebrate their life right now.”
HuffPost Canada asked Brunner and MacCoubrey how grieving Canadians can comfort themselves and each other during a pandemic. Here’s what they had to say:
Pay respects the way the departing want to
For those whose loved ones are still present, Brunner says fulfilling their last wishes can be a source of comfort.
Asking how they would like to be remembered can both affirm to the dying that their presence will be honoured after they pass, while giving the mourners a task to do that won’t necessarily involve breaking safety protocol. For example, someone’s dying wish may request for certain songs to be in place at their funeral. If a funeral needs to be delayed, you may find it comforting to spend time planning that request in a truly special way (like arranging a live band) for the future ceremony.
When a loved one seeks death traditions unique to their culture or religion, it might be best to seek an official update that contemplates pandemic guidelines before enacting them. BAO released a guide for Muslim-Canadians who may want to wash the dead that includes COVID-19 prevention tips.
Find an advocate
Hospital won’t let you enter the palliative care unit? Or finding your grief on top of your COVID-19 anxiety too much to bear?
MacCoubrey and Brunner both say that pandemic-related regulations are changing by the minute. It can be hard for people to keep up with what’s safe to do when the situation changes so rapidly.
In these scenarios, it might be helpful to have someone act as a buffer. For Brunner’s client, she was able to communicate between hospital staff and the grieving family in order to facilitate a visit with the father; one-by-one, each family member was able to talk to him one last time before he passed away.
“I advocated for them and got clarity from the hospital,” she said. “Buffers create a barrier. In times of crisis, when someone’s giving you information, you’re taking maybe half of it in.”
See the deceased one at a time
MacCoubrey said that funeral homes in Ontario are currently allowing limited numbers to visit. For those seeking private time before the burial or cremation, he suggests families break up their visits in order to maintain as little physical contact as possible.
Host an online goodbye
Zoom and Google Hangouts are helping people see each other virtually, a feature that comes in handy for those who depend on community for solace.
Many mortuary services are streaming virtual celebrations of life on their websites, with Facebook Live being a popular option.
It’s far the perfect solution; those who’ve experienced a ZOOM funeral or bereavement ritual can attest to the frustrations of being so far from their loved one.
While a surreal, sad reality for the living, a virtual service is a better alternative than no service at all.
Remember that online etiquette still stands
Manners shouldn’t be forgotten, even at an online ceremony. To ensure the virtual proceedings are as respectful as possible, encourage attendees to minimize their background noise. If you’re the organizer, considering running a test run of the ceremony to prevent technical hiccups.
Digital last prayers work too
Religious services from a spiritual leader may only be doable over phone or video call in situations where guests aren’t permitted. It may be worth turning to your loved one’s congregation or researching possible online providers in order to seek a willing participant.
Hold a ‘parking lot’ funeral
It’s still possible to see other mourners in-person. MacCoubrey said a southwestern Ontario colleague recently held a “parking lot” service. Attendees drove to the funeral home and were escorted by the director one-by-one to come inside to pay respects. When the clock struck two, everyone returned to their cars and logged into Zoom to watch the funeral proceedings from the parking lot.
“This way, you get everything. You keep the numbers down, but you’re right there with everyone else and can see everybody. That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Embrace grieving slowly
The pace of grieving will be different during a pandemic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Brunner notes. As opposed to the schedule set by the funeral industry, mourners in quarantine may feel freer to grieve at their own pace.
“A three-hour viewing might be overwhelming. [In a pandemic situation] someone calls you in the morning, someone calls you in the afternoon,” she said. “You get an email the next day. It’s a trickle effect that might make grief more soothing.”
It’s a positive way of looking at the unfortunate circumstances that Brunner hopes might shift how people see grief as something to be completed on a timeline.
Go through what you shared together
Since people are expected to stay at home unless they need groceries, it may be impossible to sort through your loved one’s belongings, which can be an essential part of the healing process for many families.
Brunner recommends connecting with the departed through emotional souvenirs that already may be in your own home, such as books they loved or photos taken together. In the absence of those, reminiscing over cherished moments can honour their memory.
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